One of the notable things highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic is that the many decisions arising from it, whether pertaining to emergency responses, minimizing transmissions, or building back better, inevitably involve diverse viewpoints, contrasting options, and sometimes acrimonious conflict. Every aspect of the pandemic seems to have required societies and individuals to grapple with the same central question: What is really essential? Though this question has been repeatedly asked, it is seldom successfully addressed. People holding opposing views remain at loggerheads about priorities, be it personal freedom versus conforming to social restrictions, health and safety versus livelihood and physical interaction, environmental sustainability versus economic recovery, and vaccine availability versus reliability. The contrary positions and their implied trade-offs reflect diverse viewpoints about the hierarchy of goods and the time horizons involved. Going deeper, this lack of agreement is largely because many societies fail to dialogue about the most foundational question of all: What is the ultimate truth about our existence? Or, in more casual terms, what makes life tick?
The lack of fruitful confrontation with this fundamental question and therefore with its implications about universal values is partly a result of the culture of relativism that has taken hold in our milieu. On the one hand, the conventions and discourses of international bodies, local governments, and even businesses increasingly contain value-laden terms such as “the common good”, “sustainability”, “fairness”, “equal opportunity”, and “human dignity”. On the other hand, few unpack these terms adequately, let alone seek consensus on what they comprise precisely. One key reason could be that conversations around what is good and true inevitably require persons to uncover, communicate, substantiate, and even rethink their stance about ultimate reality. Many people, however, have not thought about this deeply and personally. The prospect of having to reach consensus with others is even more daunting. Most of all, any investigation into ultimate reality eventually leads to the issue of primary causes of reality and hence to the question of God. Not many people are willing or ready to enter this ambivalent and somewhat contentious space. Increasing secularism in a “dis-enchanted” public domain also make it uncomfortable or even socially unacceptable for the notion of God to be discussed openly.
Nevertheless, the challenges arising from Covid-19 do present valuable opportunities for conversation and possibly consensus on what is ultimately true and good. Without this, it would be difficult for any concerted action, decision, or policy to work. More importantly, an on-going dialogue and discernment—and re-discernment—of foundational worldviews and values enables a society to build its collective wisdom, forge social unity, facilitate intentional living and agenda-setting, and in the long run, undergo positive cultural transformation. It is thus indispensable for the development of human communities. At the individual level, authentic confrontation with ultimate truth and values helps guide personal living. During the Covid pandemic for instance, there have been much disruptions to daily routines, livelihoods, careers, social interactions, and physical movements. This has prompted many people to ask: What do I live for? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What is my identity? What do I truly desire? The presence of illness and death all around have also provoked much philosophical wondering: Why does all this suffering occur? Where is God if God exists? Painful as these questions are, they can also be segues to emerging stronger and living more purposefully. Indeed, major disruptions of any sort provide individuals and societies with the opportunity to re-examine the now-broken path they have trodden, and to refine their assumptions and vision so as to build back better.
With the light of the Gospel, the Church certainly has an important role to play in guiding such reflections. However, the Church itself has been disrupted—not only by the Covid pandemic but even more so by the prolonged crises of abuse, scandals, clericalism, and internal divisions and inequalities. Beset with its own vulnerability and shortcomings, how is the Church to be a respected and credible voice today? Ironically, perhaps it can be even more fruitful by giving witness through the path of humility, self-honesty, mutuality, and sensitivity to others. It could shift from its long-held approach of telling and instructing to one of enquiring and learning with others, each party sharing its own wisdom tradition, and all seeking truth together in dialogue. This is true synodality and discerning leadership.
This season of Advent in the Covid pandemic can be a time to make a fresh start. Members of ecclesial communities such as parishes, dioceses, religious congregations, lay associations and Catholic institutions can carry out a series of communal conversations. They can share with one another their personal experiences of the Covid pandemic, their consolations and desolations during this challenging year, and their hopes and anxieties. They can also reflect on what is happening in the wider society and dialogue about the fundamental questions that have emerged. They can then revisit the wisdom of the faith tradition to rediscover what is truly essential and bring this into dialogue with the signs of the times. This could illuminate what needs to change in church, society, institution, and personal life in order to build back better. Such conversations can greatly deepen the faith and mission of the community.
Beyond immediate Catholic circles, ecclesial communities can also reach out to non-Catholics through their affiliated schools, social institutions, ministries, and many other works. Staff, volunteers, youth, parents, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders are likely to need greater support, fellowship, and direction during this prolonged pandemic. Whatever their religious stance, people are seeking to make sense of this painful crisis, cope with its many disruptions, and find meaning through worthy goals that can sustain them. The youth are especially vulnerable and in need of guidance and encouragement. Pastors and their co-workers can certainly initiate conversations to help people reflect on the crisis, support one another, explore their vision of what is ultimately true and good, and draw strength from such a vision. These conversations should not be attempts to impose religious doctrines or convert people over to the Catholic faith. Rather, everyone is a fellow seeker, mindful of his or her own need for conversion, and desiring to learn and change for the better.
To this end, the conversation might proceed through the following levels of reflection that begin with immediate realities and move towards foundational truths. It is best carried out in small groups and in a more contemplative setting.
- First, participants could take stock of their personal experiences and take turns to share with one another. Questions such as the following can be used:
- How has the pandemic affected you? How are you coping? What have been some positive experiences? Where are the challenges? What are some issues you’ve had to face? What events or developments in the institution, community, and wider society have caught your attention? What questions do you ponder, if any?
- After the first round of sharing, the conversation could proceed to a more reflective level, with questions such as:
- Why do you feel more pre-occupied with certain things? What are your underlying fears and anxieties, hopes and desires? What have you learnt from this experience and what has changed within you, if at all? What seems to be changing in the institution, community, and society?
- Going deeper, the following questions could then be asked:
- What do you regard as most essential? What is really important to you and why? What gives you strength? What are the values and worldviews that have traditionally guided the institution, community, and society? What might need rethinking or re-examining? Why?
- Finally, the central issue about ultimate reality can be confronted:
- What do you believe to be the ultimate driving force of life and reality? What do you think is the foundational principle of all existence?
An exercise of going through these questions is helpful in itself. However, it is not enough. In general, everyone operates on a default paradigm of life and reality but few have really thought about it in a conscious way. Some people might not have even thought about their own values and deepest desires. It is often in times of crisis that such questions beckon to be confronted. What’s important is to consider how one’s default worldview might need to be improved upon or even changed radically. To this end, participants undertaking the above conversation can aid one another by going back to the roots of their wisdom traditions in religion, culture and community, and sharing this with each other. Catholic teaching, for instance, highlights a principle of existence based upon the love of God which creates and vivifies the whole universe towards fullness of life. As incarnated in Christ, fullness of life implies the integral unity of humankind and its union with God and all creation, and involves the holistic flourishing of all, with a meaningful role for each one. It is also a developmental process with an eschatological horizon.
How can teachings from specific wisdom traditions be shared and explored fruitfully in a diverse group? First, it must be recognized that the process of gaining insight about the principle of existence is not a merely intellectual one. Though it is necessary to employ reason in understanding and evaluating the precepts of each religion, culture, and discipline, ultimately, authentic insight about foundational truths is something that occurs deep in the human heart. It is a form of “knowing” within the core of one’s being that often feels amorphous yet undeniable. It can also be a potentially life-changing experience. One sees with new eyes, and eventually regards all things through the new paradigm. From the Christian perspective, this is a moment of grace, a gift from God. To be disposed to such an experience, it is necessary to enter into community. Insight comes not in isolation or self-sufficiency but through dialogue and solidarity. The sharing of wisdom is also done in a spirit of non-violent communication and even vulnerability; not by spewing formal doctrines at people but by exposing one’s heart, sharing from genuine personal experience however inchoate. In fact it is often through unpolished but sincere articulations that truth becomes transparent.
Having heard a diversity of views, participants in a conversation about ultimate reality then make time for prayer, meditation, or quiet contemplation. This could entail simply dwelling with the various ideas that have been explored, being silent and still, and attending to how one is deeply moved. Participants can also recall past experiences of profound gratitude, inner peace, fullness, positive energy, and unconditional love in one’s life. Insight into ultimate truth often resonates with such experiences. Some people find it helpful to divert for a while towards activities which allow the heart its own space and freedom for pondering. This could include taking leisurely walks in nature or engaging with the powerful medium of art. Others might shift to something new and creative which they have not done before. Still others might simply carry out their daily routines with less haste and greater mindfulness. Insight comes as a gradual process for many people, while some might experience a radically new worldview quite suddenly. Whatever the case, it is always a work-in-progress, never full or complete.
On the part of religious organizations such as the Church, much can be done in aiding reflection on ultimate reality by considering more universal concepts and languages for the divine. Many of the current notions espoused by religious communities tend to be exclusionary, limited, particular, and even discriminatory. They are thus in need of broadening or even conversion. This is especially important for persons who might resist any talk about God or about values which have religious undertones. Such resistances sometimes stem from negative encounters with people of various faith traditions or from past negative personal experiences in faith communities. However justified these might be, such feelings need to be attended to. A principle of existence that excludes any notion of the divine from the outset would be prematurely truncated. It would also end up being anthropocentric, Pelagian, and eventually devoid of hope. If there is one lesson we can learn from Covid, it is that human beings’ view of our place in the world is distorted whenever we see ourselves at the center and ignore everything else. A rectification of such a vision would thus encompass the bigger picture, including all the inter-connections, and inevitably open up to a more universal and transcendent principle of existence. It entails no less than a re-enchantment of the world.
To this end, a more universal notion of “God” might be found through dialogue among cultures and religions, and by considering the worldview of people who have no religious affiliation or who even identify themselves as atheists. With such people in particular, it is important to begin not by preaching but by active and appreciative inquiry into their perspective, listening deeply to them and encouraging their authentic voice. Broader conceptions and even surprisingly refreshing notions of the divine might be discovered. For instance, people who have no religious affiliation might nevertheless speak of a driving force of goodness that seems to pervade all reality, despite the equally undeniable existence of destructive forces. During the Covid pandemic in particular, there have been much death, suffering, selfishness, and exploitation. However, people have also noted acts of kindness, solidarity, responsibility, and the renewal and flourishing of nature. Hence the divine presence could be more broadly conceived as a transcendent and universal potential of goodness, unity, and growth, and a driving force of wholeness which humans can either collaborate with or sabotage. At the affective level, some people might be able to identify personal experiences of having been touched by a sense of transcendence or fullness, or being profoundly moved by something beyond themselves, or experiencing an inexplicable sense of peace, deep love, and healing. By promoting attention to these experiences and learning from each one’s encounter with the transcendent, the Church can grow in its own understanding of God together with all humanity. This would truly be a synodal way of proceeding.
Going forward, the Church needs to be a more pro-active partner with civic, business, government, and international organizations in re-building from Covid. To this end, its way of sharing religious truths such as the kingdom of God and salvation can also be made more universal. By listening to the narratives of others including secular organizations, the Church can recognize those guiding principles which potentially resonate with its own teachings. Some terms which have increasing currency include “common good, human dignity, equality and justice for all, solidarity, holistic approach, social responsibility, spiritual well-being”, and in these Covid times, “building back sustainably”. This is not to say that such terms equate to the religious notions such as kingdom of God and salvation, which always signify something more. Rather, it is a matter of making dialogue and collaboration possible in the first place by starting with ideas that resonate with people and which are more readily acceptable in the public space. These positive ideas from the secular domain can also be seen as manifestations of the spirit of God animating the world. They thus serve as a segue to reflecting more deeply on underlying values and the principle of existence, and ultimately on the divine reality. This not only helps institutions and societies to build back better but also enables individuals to discover their true life meaning and purpose.
Discerning leadership, with its disposition of openness, sensitivity, humility, and depth is very much needed today. Indeed, re-enchanting the world in this secular age is not so much about mainstreaming formal religion in society as it is about getting in touch with the positive force of life and love that seems to be active everywhere in the cosmos and is present deep in the human heart. Whatever names or personalities have been given to this lifeforce, it can be genuinely recognized as the foundational principle of all existence and therefore as the starting point for construing universal truth and values. It is only with such a shared and authentic foundation that any attempt to build back better, whether in personal life, Church, or society, will be fruitful and sustainable.